Hurling legend, Michael Fennelly, was just 20 when he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS)

Former Kilkenny hurler and Offaly senior hurling manager, Michael Fennelly, was just 20 when he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and he has been living with the painful condition for the past 16 years.

Kilkenny hurler Michael fennelly, Arthritis Ireland

As a member of the Kilkenny team, Michael initially found himself needing extra physiotherapy to ease his joints before training sessions and games; however, he didn’t realise that his pain was due to AS until his father was hospitalised with the very same condition.

‘His whole body nearly shut down,’ he said recalling his father’s illness. ‘Ankylosing spondylitis was the word that was brought back to us and it was the first time I ever heard of it. I didn’t know what it was, and even trying to spell it in Google was a challenge itself.’

As Michael began to read up on his father’s condition, he quickly realised that he too had a lot of the symptoms associated with AS, such as chronic back pain, which started in the middle of his back and spread to his neck and ribcage. It had also become increasingly difficult for Michael to sit or stand for long periods of time.

While physiotherapy helped to relieve the pain initially for a few days, it soon became apparent that something serious was going on, so Michael visited his GP who diagnosed AS from a blood test.

As a senior hurler with several All-Ireland medals under his belt, the stiffness and pain caused by AS in his back and neck began to create major difficulties for Michael, given the massive physical demands of the game.

Michael Fennelly at home, ankylosing spondylitis

Understanding his condition

He came to understand triggers of flare-ups, which included sitting for long periods of time. He had to avoid playing golf during the inter-county season due to the risk of flare-up; gymwork had to be carefully planned based on how his body was feeling.

Michael looked at it as a risk or reward. ‘If I increase the weights on the barbell, will it make me much stronger in comparison to the risk of flaring my back muscles?’

Remaining injury-free and being able to train and compete with the Kilkenny senior hurling team was his priority at the cost of getting fitter, stronger and more powerful.

I’d see other players going to the gym and they were getting stronger and more powerful, and you know I’d be very competitive in that side of things. But I just had to kind of take a step back really and try and keep myself as healthy as I could for training and not be injured,’ he explained.

Despite his best efforts, there were some days when the pain and stiffness in Michael’s back threatened his ability to play.

He recalled one occasion where his back gave up on him in the dressing room just before the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford. However, with the support of the team doctor, he persevered and went out to play the game.

Getting help for ankylosing spondylitis

Micheal paid huge credit to his team mates and all its supporting members, including the team doctor, Dr Tadgh Crowley and physio Kevin Curran, in helping him to keep playing hurling despite the major difficulties he faced as a result of AS.

‘I got huge support from the lads and wouldn’t have been able to play without their support. In 2013/14, it was really hard because it was one of those stages when my back kicked off, we couldn’t understand what was going on, it wasn’t settling. I think I lost about 9kg over those two or three months, and the management and medical team could have written me off for the year because that was heading into June and All-Ireland finals were the start of September. Thankfully it eventually settled down, I got some medication that helped and I got back playing.

‘The management had huge belief in me, and thankfully, I did deliver most of the time but there was huge personal pressure. I think the pressure got more and more as the years went on because I was getting older and body wasn’t operating as well, especially into your 30s. I lasted ’til 33, which was great. I thought I might get one more year out of it, but I think I had to listen to my body at that stage and call it a day. I still wanted to play like a player in his mid-twenties but coming off the field with three injuries in my final game against Waterford in 2017 could not be dismissed.’

Michael himself deserves huge credit for pushing himself to continue to play hurling at All-Ireland level, his commitment and dedication to the game and refusal to give in to the debilitating pain of AS is inspirational.

Michael Fennelly was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis

Reach out and talk to someone who has the condition

The unremitting pain sometimes encroaches on his mood, making him understandably uptight and moody and not himself. There were days he would just want to be left alone.

Thankfully, Michael also gets good days when he gets a break from the pain, days when he can almost forget about his AS and feel ‘normal’ again.

‘You can definitely forget you have it. Without a doubt you can go through really good periods, good weeks and it’s great. I do feel normal, but when it’s bad it’s bad.’

Michael said he would advise anyone who has recently been diagnosed with AS to reach out and talk to someone who has the condition.

‘You could read up about it as much as you want, but I think talking to people who have it actually will help,’ he advised.

‘I think sharing your story with someone is important. There are people who can help, there’s no point feeling sorry for yourself and asking the question why me. You have a long life ahead and it’s important that you enjoy it as much as possible.’

Life today is good

Today for Michael who has been living with AS for 16 years, life is busy. A lecturer at the new Technological University of Shannon (TUS), he’s completing a PhD in leadership and management, and is also manager of the Offaly senior hurling team. He is a husband and dad to two small children (Teddy and Billy) who along with his studies, hurling commitments, swimming and cycling, help him to stay active and manage his condition.

‘Life is good,’ he said.

You can look at AS from two points of view. You can put your head in the sand and give out and complain or you can say, “Look what can I do? What is manageable?” And for me it’s always looking at the glass half full; life is too short and there’s plenty that people with AS can do, without a doubt,’ he said.

‘It’s about the sharing your story, understanding your own body, and just living life to the best,’ Michael added.

Michael Fennelly ankylosing spondylitis